The high price of being the Lakers
With steep taxes looming, the team will have difficult choices to make soon
LOS ANGELES -- Steve Nash sat in front of his locker Tuesday night before a game that could have essentially ended this miserable Los Angeles Lakers season. He put his socks on slowly. His hamstrings were still sore, his hip was in spasm, his back wasn't much better. Every movement required some consideration and care.
If things had gone as planned for the Lakers this season, Nash would be resting right now. Healing up for the playoffs. Gearing up for what he'd hoped would be a championship run at the end of his Hall of Fame career. Instead, he was figuring out a way to get his body well enough to play again as soon as possible to help the Lakers make the playoffs as the No. 8 seed.
"We just don't have any room for error," Nash said before a Lakers win over the Dallas Mavericks that kept their playoff hopes alive another day. "We have to get these wins, no matter who we're playing.
"I think part of us are disappointed we're in this position and we blame ourselves for it. But another part of us is like, 'We've been through so much. We've just never had a run to get a healthy team, so we don't really know.'"
Either way, this season has been something of a disaster. The league's highest payroll has belly-flopped, splashing dysfunction everywhere.
And yet as disappointing as the Lakers have been, there is a strong case to be made that they should simply heal up over the summer and try it all over again next year. Re-sign Dwight Howard, keep Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and Nash, hold on to as much of the bench as you can, maybe even give coach Mike D'Antoni another crack at it, this time with the benefit of a full training camp to install and teach his system.
"I'm fine with that," Nash said. "There's a lot of factors that go into that I haven't evaluated right now, so we'll see. But I definitely think there will be a lot of motivation to get off to a much better start and see if we can get some continuity at least and become a good team."
There's just one problem with that idea: It's totally irresponsible from a financial perspective.
As ESPN.com salary-cap expert Larry Coon outlined earlier this week, with the changes to the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement really starting to kick in next season, if the Lakers again field a roster about $30 million over the luxury-tax line -- as they are this season-- they'd be on the hook for a whopping $85 million in tax, due to the new progressive luxury-tax system.
Even the Lakers, with their impeccable brand and $5 billion TV contract with Time Warner Cable SportsNet, would have a hard time with that.
"It just doesn't make any sense," said one Western Conference executive. "From a business perspective, I just don't see how you can do it."
Harsh words. Harsher reality ahead.
Over the past week, ESPNLosAngeles.com has interviewed a group of agents, executives and players to find out just how difficult it will be for the Lakers to sort through all the issues, options and problems this new stark financial reality has thrust upon them heading into next season.
There are no easy answers. But there are several areas upon which almost everyone agreed.
"No matter what, they have to re-sign Dwight," one general manager said. "Even if they don't want to move forward with Dwight, you gotta re-sign him because he's a tradable asset no matter what he makes. Someone will take him.
"Even if he's taken a step back, someone will take him. He's 27 years old and he's arguably still the best center in the league; someone will take that. You can always move him, but if you don't have him under your control, then you've got nothing."
Howard is eligible to sign a five-year, $118 million contract with the Lakers this summer. That's approximately $30 million more in guaranteed money than he can get from any other team. If the Lakers are able to re-sign him, but it becomes clear on either side that this marriage was not meant to be, Howard would be eligible to be traded after Dec. 15.
More likely, though, the Lakers will want to build around Howard going forward. While his season has been uneven as he's tried to bounce back from offseason surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back, he's still regarded by most as the best center in the NBA.
"It's not only about having him, but it's about having him to attract other players," the general manager said. "You might overpay him; he might not be what he was before, but as long as he can bring other guys to L.A., you gotta have that. Players want to play with a big man who is an anchor defensively."
It has become something of a common assumption now that if Howard re-signs with the Lakers, Pau Gasol and his $19.3 million salary will either be traded or the team will exercise its amnesty rights on his contract.
That's not as simple as it sounds, however.
The Lakers would have to answer to Bryant, who is on record as saying "I love Pau like a brother," and would then be in the final year of his contract. Would this really be the way the organization wants to end Bryant's Hall of Fame career?
The Lakers would also have to find a trade that doesn't return an even more cumbersome contract.
"He's an expiring contract, but even then, I don't know how much interest there's going to be around the league for him," the general manager said. "Because if you really felt like he was viable for you for the next couple of years, can you re-sign him? Are you just renting him for a year to try and get yourself over the hump to win a championship?"
Another general manager didn't think that would be as much of a problem.
"He'll have value as a super expiring contract," the second general manager said. "There are 12 teams with 12 million or more in [salary-cap space] this summer. Multiple teams will be open to doing an uneven deal to acquire him.
"They [the Lakers] would probably have to take back a multiyear deal at a lower number. Say, somebody with two or three years left at 6 million a year. They can't incentivize a deal because they have no assets -- no [draft] picks and no young players of value.
"But by 2014 they can always move the $6 million guy to [a team under the salary cap] by conveying $3 million if the guy can play at all."
Trading Gasol is also tricky timing-wise. He is the Lakers' insurance policy if Howard signs elsewhere. The team likely won't get an answer on Howard until early to mid-July, and as one agent pointed out, Gasol's highest trade value will likely be in advance of the NBA draft in late June.
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A more radical option that would essentially solve most of the Lakers' luxury-tax woes would be to exercise the amnesty option on Gasol, which would result in a savings of nearly $62 million, according to Coon.
"Yeah, but how does that help you?" the first general manager said. "The question then isn't so much, would they do it? It's, 'Why would they choose to do it?'
"I'm not privy to their internal discussions."
Said the second general manager: "That just helps cash flow, not basketball."
A more likely option is to go the amnesty route with Metta World Peace, who is due $7.7 million in the final year of his contract. According to Coon, that would effectively save the Lakers some $30 million in salary and taxes.
World Peace, who will turn 34 in November, is recovering from knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
His agent, Marc Cornstein, told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin last week that he has not spoken with Lakers management about the possibility of their exercising the amnesty clause on his client.
"That's been tabled for a little while," Cornstein said. "There will be time to go through that after the season."
World Peace recently told NBA.com he was mulling declining his player option for next season in hopes of signing a new, multiyear contract.
"That's premature," Cornstein said. "Our biggest concern now is how he recovers from his injury, not where he'll be in the future."
If World Peace opts out of his contract and doesn't sign a new deal with the Lakers, the team could amnesty another player for additional savings. Only Bryant, Gasol and backup point guard Steve Blake, who is due $4 million next season, are eligible.
One general manager said if World Peace opts out and the Lakers choose the amnesty route with Blake's $4 million, it would be the "ultimate coup" -- a development that would, according to Coon, net a savings of more than $43 million.
While World Peace's knee injury has complicated the matter, there is still a sense that he is considering opting out, according to sources.
One Lakers player said he believes World Peace wants to see what his market value is, and to lock in another two- or three-year contract.
In other words, if the Lakers don't make the playoffs or lose before World Peace's knee is healed, he may have already played his last game as a Laker.
If it sounds like everything is pretty much on the table, and every Lakers player is pretty much expendable, you're almost right.
No one we talked to said they would consider amnestying or trading Bryant.
"I wouldn't do that, no," the first general manager said. "I don't see that happening. But [Dallas Mavericks owner Mark] Cuban was absolutely right. It would change a lot for them."
It would be nearly impossible to trade Bryant because of his $30 million salary and his no-trade clause.
It would also be difficult to deal Steve Nash, who is due $19 million over the next two seasons. While one general manager thought Toronto might still have interest -- the Raptors were one of the teams the native Canadian considered as a free agent last summer -- Nash has been so adamant about playing in a town close to his children in Phoenix that it would be hard for any team to trade for him without assurances he wouldn't retire.
If Nash is back in L.A., there is still a compelling argument to keep Mike D'Antoni as coach. Nash missed D'Antoni's first two months on the job, and a full season together just might be enough to rekindle the old magic they had in Phoenix. The relationship between Nash and Howard, running the pick-and-roll plays that are central to D'Antoni's philosophy, has improved throughout the season.
"[Lakers general manager] Mitch [Kupchak] really likes him and there's few alternatives that would be clear upgrades," the second general manager said.
Others were less optimistic about D'Antoni's future with the team.
"I don't think he'll be back based on his style of play with an aged roster," said another agent. "If I'm them, I admit the mistake as opposed to trying to make it work."
D'Antoni signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Lakers in November. A fourth year is at the team's option. The Lakers swallowed another $10 million when they fired Mike Brown in the second year of a four-year deal.
"I like Mike D'Antoni, but if I was them, that's the move I'd make," the first general manager said. "You can talk about amnestying players and trades, but players are still assets. Coaches are different."
It all sounds so cold and clinical. Assets, amnesty clauses, anchors to build around, and advanced ages to consider. Where's chemistry in all this? Where's Kobe loving Pau like a brother? Where's Nash's noble quest to win that elusive first championship?
All those narratives still exist. They'll just be pushed to the margins once this season ends (and especially if it ends early).
And so Nash will keep pushing. Willing himself to ignore the pain in his body and get back on the court to help win the team's last seven regular-season games and salvage this lost season.
That's his job -- focus on the moment, do everything he can to help the team win games right now. But for the organization, with a financial cliff ahead, the job is to figure out how to win games long after this moment, and this season, ends.
"They won't be able to keep everybody," one Lakers player said. "It's going to be different next year."